Cockfighting: The Rise and Fall

Bring up the idea of a blood sport involving animals, such as cockfighting, in modern polite society and you can expect to be treated with horror, disdain and even repugnance. Doing so is one sure way to be treated like a pariah.

That has not always been the case. As far back as the glory days of the Roman empire, cockfighting was an acceptable diversion, as depicted in some art pieces. By the 1500s, it had the patronage of royalty such as Henry VIII. Such prestige was brought to North America by British colonists, where it reached the height of its popularity in the latter half of the 1700s. At its peak, cockfighting was a society favorite, second only to horse racing.

The British society had a more organized approach to the activity. Cockfighting events were scheduled in established cockpits. They even had a guide called the Rules and Order of Cocking. American affairs were a little more casual, with the fights happening in available open space, usually around a tavern, just marked off with rope. These were well publicized and well attended though, with records showing a fight having as many as sixty pairs of combatants. They also brought significant business, both for tavern owners near the fight site, and for bettors. Fights were so popular that they attracted aficionados from all levels of society. It was thus not unlikely to see the genteel crowd rubbing elbows with farmers, and rooting for their favorite roosters.

Similar to modern-day boxers and wrestlers, the cocks were grouped according to weight. Breeders set out to produce the most aggressive lines, gave them a special diet, and exercised them in preparation for matches. During matches, small sharp blades, more often silver, called spurs were strapped on to the roosters' legs. Fights were often to the death, or at least until neither rooster could no longer fight.

By the late 1700s, more and more people were getting repulsed with cockfighting for various reasons. Some disapproved of the rowdy behavior often characterizing the fights. Some were disgusted by the violence and cruel treatment of the roosters. Some even saw the activity as an unwelcome reminder of British rule.

For these various reasons, efforts from both academe and the government were put in place to stop the practice. Congress and some states, including Georgia, passed laws to make the activity illegal. This holds true to the present day, though there may still be some underground fights going on.